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It makes all the sense in the world to contest one’s rights vis-à-vis any oppressive social or political structure; it makes no sense whatever to do so in the context of personal relations.

Hobbes and Locke Revisited: The Foundations of the Modern Liberal State, Part VI

If there is one concept which is implicit in, if not antecedent to, the concept of self-ownership, it is the concept of right (or rights): a right to the fruits of one’s labor, to one’s property, even a right to sell oneself as a slave (in which extreme case, one happens to forfeit his or her self-ownership rights). It’s tempting to imagine therefore (since we’re talking about economics) that our rights originated as a moral concept first and foremost; and that only in time, as we progressed, they’ve evolved to acquire their political connotation and flavoring. And this would suggest a kind of progress from essentially a pre-political, moral community to a political one.

Linguistic data and history of usage do not support this contention. And although the expression moral right is not exactly an oxymoron, we’re much more comfortable to speak of moral obligations instead. Perhaps morality has less to do with self-assertion or self-promotion than politics does. A case in point: conscience, a moral term through-and-through, is more about what not to do than what to do. The moral ought, all appearances to the contrary, does not contradict that insight. It’s obligation-bound, strictures one imposes on self. Morality is a way of life, a path; and one of the requirements is to remain true to oneself.

If anything, the notion of political obligation is an oxymoron, though not by inadvertence or linguistic incompetence, one might add, but by design. Hobbes was well aware of the fact, for he tried as desperately as he could to anchor the notion in morals: it was moral obligation as well, Hobbes claimed (MacPherson). Be that as it may, we can surely appreciate Wittgenstein’s warning about the mixing of language games as constituting the main source of our conceptual confusion (although in this case, I contend, the resulting confusion is Orwellian in intent).

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t any legitimate areas of overlap between politics and morality; one would surely hope there had better be some if we’re to regard our politics as honorable endeavor. One thing, however, seems for certain. Politics is about structure, social structure; morality is not. Even clan-based or tribal societies are essentially political in makeup, whereas morality (concerning itself as it does with strictly person-to-person relations) is not. It makes all the sense in the world to contest one’s rights vis-à-vis any oppressive social or political structure; it makes no sense whatever to do so in the context of personal relations. If there be any lesson in this, it’s that we’ve got to tread careful here, very careful.

Another observation of note: it would appear that all property-based arrangements, to include full-blown market relations and exchange, are inconceivable in the absence of the political, in a pre-political community, that is. They all seem to require the sanction by the state, however one cares to define the state.

David Graeber makes the very same point in Debt: The First 5,000 Years, but more on that later.

About Roger Nowosielski

I'm a free lance writer. Areas of expertise: philosophy, sociology, liberal arts, and literature. An academic at a fringe, you might say, and I like it that way.

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